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The Top Fashion and Retail Blunders of 2019

For 2020, retailers should set new resolutions to be less tone deaf.

In an age when the global environment is more focused on diversity and inclusivity, it’s hard to imagine what companies continued landing themselves in the hot seat over what should have been avoidable blunders.

At the start of 2018, H&M had a marketing visual showing a black child model wearing a hoodie that said “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The fast-fashion firm pulled the product and quickly apologized, and it also moved quickly to name a global leader for diversity and inclusivity. And while the latter was a positive move, questions arise over how the product managed to hit shelves in the first place.

Last year also saw other fashion blunders, including Dolce & Gabbana needing to postpone a fashion show in Shanghai following backlash from a marketing video featuring a Chinese model eating Italian foods using chopsticks. And in December, Prada removed an animal charm from its Pradamalia line–black monkeys with exaggerated red lips–over charges the product resembled blackface, theatrical makeup once used in now controversial minstrel shows.

“Fashion is about taking from different cultures and expressing it in a different way. But in many cases the [interpretation] is misguided and then you have some brands, not as sensitive as they should be, operating like they did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of research consultancy firm A-Line Partners.

As for the faux pas in 2019, the cultural insensitivity continued.

“We are living in a very sensitive world now, with zero tolerance for anything that remotely seems controversial,” said Natalie Kotlyer, who heads up the retail practice at consulting advisory firm BDO.

Cultural insensitivity was the biggest blunder among many fashion firms and retailers this year, according to Kotlyer. The key is how quickly companies respond and own up to their mistakes. Kotlyer cited Victoria’s Secret as one example of a company listening to its consumers this year, and the intimate brand’s decision to discontinue its fashion show following criticism that it hasn’t been as inclusive as it should have been.

As we head into 2020, here’s a look at the top 10 fashion and retail blunders from 2019 that the industry would do best to leave behind in the new year.

Amazon

When: January

What: Amazon had to remove items its third-party merchants were selling that were deemed offensive to Muslims, including doormats and bathmats with imprinted verses from the Koran, prompting complaints that the items would be stepped-on or otherwise disrespected.

Amazon removed the items, but also noted that sellers on its site must follow selling guidelines or risk the removal of their account.

Burberry

When: February

What: The fashion brand’s CEO Marco Gobbetti issued an apology for having a model walking the runway wearing a hoodie with a noose around her neck for its Autumn/Winter 2019 collection during London Fashion Week. In published reports, Gobbetti, originally attributing the design as inspired by the marine theme of the collection, noted that it was insensitive and a mistake.

Gucci

When: February

What: The Italian fashion house pulled its $890 black “balaclava” polo neck sweater after social media users noted that the design resembled blackface.

“We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make. We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond,” Gucci said in a Twitter post response.

Katy Perry Collection

When: February

What: Katy Perry found herself at the eye of a storm earlier this year in connection with her Rue Face Slip-On Loafers and the Ora Face Block Heel. While the two footwear styles were offered in multiple colors, it was the black background that had social media users up in arms, citing the design feature as resembling blackface.

The singer and Global Brands Group, her brand management firm, noted in media reports that the designs–blue eyes and red lips– were a nod to modern art and surrealism. They issued an apology and removed the offending footwear from distribution channels.

Nordstrom, Gucci (again)

When: May

What: The Italian fashion house stumbled again in 2019, selling its $790 “Indy Full Turban” on Nordstrom’s website and setting itself up for controversy over cultural appropriation of the Sikh headdress.

“The turban is not just an accessory to monetize; it’s a religious article of faith that millions of Sikhs view as sacred,” the Sikh Coalition said in a Twitter post, noting also that those wearing the turban just for fashion “will not appreciate its deep religious significance.”

Nordstrom issued an apology via a tweet. Although the retailer removed the item from its site, the item page, as of publication time, can still be pulled up. The difference now is that, referred to as a Gucci “Head Wrap,” is listed as sold out, and no longer includes a product shot.

Two months after the controversy, in July, Renée Tirado was named Gucci’s first ever global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. Tirado held a similar post for Major League Baseball. Steps at Gucci to increase diversity awareness actually began in February, following its “blackface” debacle.

Kim Kardashian West

When: June

What: Kardashian called her new shapewear brand Kimono, and even tried to trademark the word, but ended up on the receiving end of criticism for cultural appropriation.

Daisaku Kadokawa, the mayor of Kyoto, even penned an open letter explaining the rich heritage of the kimono in Japanese culture and asking her to drop the trademark. Kardashian, who noted that her brand is built with inclusivity and diversity in mind, subsequently renamed the line Skims, which launched in September.

Forever 21

When: July

What: The fast-fashion retailer sent, unsolicited, a sample of an Atkins diet bar in online orders of plus-size merchandise, prompting a social media backlash as Twitter users asked if the bars were sent to non-plus size women, too.

While Forever 21 apologized for the gaffe at the time, it noted that the company does, from time to time, include free samples for product testing to its online shoppers.

Amazon (again, and again)

When: August and December

What: Cultural insensitivity was again an issue involving third-party sellers on the Amazon.com site. The online marketplace removed apparel items showing a notorious Holocaust photo of a Nazi executing a Jew, which was sold on Amazon’s U.K. site.

Like Gucci, the online commerce platform didn’t learn from its first or even second mistake. Earlier in December it sold Christmas ornaments with images of a Nazi concentration camp.

The products were removed and Amazon again noted its policy that bans the sale of “offensive and controversial” materials connected to human tragedies and natural disasters, except for books, movies and music. But after three gaffes in the same year, it seems the marketing platform prefers to remain in reactive mode, instead relying on its third-party vendors to police themselves and the products they upload.

Walmart

When: December

What: Walmart recently recalled a holiday “Let It Snow” sweater on its Canadian website that depicted Santa and what looks like three lines of cocaine on a table.

Walmart issued an apology, and noted that the item was sold by a third-parter seller on its Canadian website.

However, variations of the sweater–in sweatshirt, hoodie and T-Shirt formats–are available on Amazon from third-party sellers. Listed as “Cocaine Santa,” the item sells for $23.99 for the tee and up to $31.99 for the other silhouettes. Another variation of the same design describes the adult sweatshirt as “tacky funny,” and is offered for sale at $49.99.

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